Three Democrats and a Republican walk into a bar…

It’s a Tuesday night, not long after a multi-hour Asheville City Council session, and the three Democrats and a Republican all happen to be Asheville City Council members sitting together drinking beer at Pack’s Tavern, just a few paces from City Hall. Why should this matter?

It matters because, when Vice Mayor Brownie Newman and Council members Gordon Smith, Esther Manheimer and Bill Russell gathered on June 8, they constituted a majority of Council — and if they agree on a government matter, those four have the votes to make it happen. Any gathering of a quorum of Council qualifies as a meeting under North Carolina open meetings law, a law whose intent is to curb governmental bodies from discussing or deciding matters away from the public eye.

I only chanced to find the foursome, when, having just finished my own day’s work covering the nearly five-hour Council meeting, I decided to unwind a bit at the tavern. I anticipated nothing more than social conversation and a beer, so I was somewhat surprised to see the four gathering around a table. I felt obligated, as a reporter, to go over and point out to them that they constituted a majority of Council sitting around that table. Manheimer, an attorney, asserted that since the gathering was purely social and no government matters would be discussed, it was legal.

“They may be absolutely accurate that they’re not discussing any public business — it’s a little hard to believe, but maybe. If so, then that’s legal,” North Carolina Press Association attorney Amanda Martin later explained to Xpress.

Indeed, the law allows elected officials to get together for a “social meeting or other informal assembly or gathering” as long as there’s no talk about matters of interest to or consideration by the governmental body on which they serve.

Russell, in online comments on Xpressinitial reporting, reasserted that no Council business was discussed and “I think it’s not ‘bad form’ to have personal relationships with your co-workers. Might do a lot of good for other politicians of the world.”

To be fair, Russell regularly votes against measures supported by his three compatriots, which does seem to make any sort of after-hours collusion politically unlikely.

But with all due respect to him and his colleagues, they aren’t just “co-workers,” but elected officials who have a lot more say than the average citizen in what happens (or doesn’t) in this town. And they are elected to exercise that power in the open, with adequate public notice.

The Press Association’s attorney made an additional point: It is hard to believe that if officials meet regularly such as the gathering at Pack’s Tavern, at some point government matters will come up and be discussed — which is, and should be, a crime.

There’s a reason why the City Clerk regularly sends out notices when Council gets invited to a ceremony or party of any sort; it’s to increase transparency about where elected officials are and what they’re doing. When the majority of Council gathers for unannounced private chats, over time it damages public confidence and wise governance, no matter how strident the denials that they’re talking about anything related to government. Council members can have whatever personal relationships they want, but when a majority of a governing body gathers around the same table, that’s a different ballgame.

Of course, this calls for greater restraint than expected from most people — but with power goes responsibility. Certain obligations come with elected office, and if that puts a bit of a damper on officials’ social life, so be it.

As for journalists raising such concerns, a lot of damage to both our profession and to good government has occurred because many in the media have become too cozy with those they cover. It’s our job, first and foremost, to act as a watchdog on those in power, even when it’s inconvenient, and especially when they say nothing’s going on.

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21 thoughts on “Three Democrats and a Republican walk into a bar…

  1. Oh my, the dastardly realities of “twitter” world have come home to rest. Had it not been for the tweets about this we might never have been made aware. It’s a new world.

  2. To me, this really isn’t a story. The reporter can read into it all he wants, but if it’s legal, it’s legal. This is more of an opinion piece than a news story. Just look at the last three paragraphs.

  3. Rebecca Sulock

    Imposter, this was filed as a staff blog, a category we opened for our reporters and writers to analyze, expound and express opinion beyond what you might find in a traditional story.

  4. Nancy

    I, for one, appreciate the diligence of the reporter. Anyone who was around during the ‘after-meetings’ of the County Commissioners at The Peddler Steak House (as Fobes mentioned earlier) knows that the appearance of impropriety is tantamount to non-transparency. We have no reason to dispute Manheimer’s and Russell’s claims of innocence, but again, caution is the order of the day, hence the statuatory requirement for disclosure. Did The Imposter also believe GWB when he asked the public to ‘Trust me’?

  5. Rebecca Sulock

    Hi Imposter,

    The home page lists it as staff opinion, but I agree, it’s not clear from this one. We’ll work on that!

  6. If Russell wants to get chummy after hours with co-workers, he should resign from public office and get a job at Chili’s.
    ………………………..

  7. Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees…..but I did catch that this was an opinion piece. I’ve been following the opinion pieces of Mr. Forbes since the blog began a few months back.

  8. Nancy, I didn’t believe a word that came from that man’s mouth (GWB), so your attempt at categorizing me has failed.

    I just think that getting all worried about this sort of thing, when it’s completely legal, is a waste of energy. It would be one thing if policies were being made from inside a pub, but they are not.

    Nothing to see here. Move along.

  9. Nancy

    Imposter, you made my point. You didn’t believe Bush (nor did I) and shouldn’t necessarily trust politicians – just because you like them – on their say-so alone. Again, I don’t doubt good intentions; fortunately the law protects all citizens, regardless of our predisposition toward certain politicians (or parties). The onus is on them to refrain, not us to trust.

    How is it that you know with certainty that policies were not being made from inside a pub?

    Motto: Remember the Peddler.

  10. Media Watcher

    Is it wise for a newspaper to let its news reporters blog about their personal opinions? Once we know the reporter’s views, won’t he or she be vulnerable to charges the he or she is “reporting” the facts to fit his/her biases? We might suspect a reporter votes Democratic or Republican, but if we know the reporter’s political affiliation, we’ll read a bias into the report. If I knew David Forbes view of the Larchmont project from an opinion piece, for example, it would be hard to credit his “news reporting” on the project. As the line between “news” and “advertising/business” is considered a “bright line” by news people, should the line between opinion and reporting be “bright?

  11. Are we supposed to simply accept casual dismissive reports of no wrong-doing from the very participants of a city council quorum at a local bar?

    This is a very poor standard. And one that does not inspire confidence.

    What mechanism is in place to ensure that city council is not conducting the people’s business in secret?

    Conformance to the letter and spirit of the law. I sense a measure of disdain for both.
    ……………………………..

  12. Nancy

    Media Watcher, where’s the bias? The update from the Council meeting report stated the facts, the law, and quoted Manheimer’s denial of any wrong-doing.

    “It’s our job, first and foremost, to act as a watchdog on those in power, even when it’s inconvenient, and especially when they say nothing’s going on.” There you have it, responsible journalism, straight out of Journalistic Ethics 101.

    And, by the way, the Larchmont stories reflected a debate between the neighbors and the developer and their allies on Council. No relevant Open Meetings Statute to reference (but unfortunately, no reporting on perceived Conflict of Interest violations, either). In any case, there’s no similarity with Forbes’ follow-up piece to his original report on Open Meetings.

  13. Media Watcher

    I must not have made myself clear to Nancy, and perhaps to others. I wasn’t imputing any bias to David Forbes in his opinion piece. I was responding to the fact the one reader did not know this was an opinion piece and mistook it for a news item. An editor, Rebecca Sulock, said MX would try to do better in clearly labeling a piece as “opinion” when written by news reporters. In that light, I was wondering if it is wise to blur the line between news reporters and opinion writers. Don’t most newspapers keep news reporters from publishing their opinions, at least on matters they cover, in their own papers and even elsewhere? Citizen-Times allows John Boyle (and apparently now Jason Sandford) to write both news (or news features) and opinion, but does always put the “This is the opinion of . .” tag at the end. My point was to the MX editors. Once your political reporter tells me his opinion of a politician’s actions, that will color how I read his subsequent “news” reports.

  14. T100C-1970

    The reporter did a fine job.

    Often I question the “wisdom” of our council people, and occasionally I question their intelligence. But even I have 100% confidence that they are ALL clever enough NOT to do whatever dirty deals (if any) that they might be doing in a public bar right after the meeting.

    Does any one know who referees what they ALSO might discuss in those closed sessions they seem to have so often??

  15. Margaret Williams

    Imposter, thanks for pointing out that this staff blog is not clearly labeled opinion or analysis on the Web page hosting the entire article, although it is labeled so on the Xpress home page. We’ll get our Webmaster to fix that.

    Media watcher: Behind the scenes at Xpress, we’ve been discussing the many evolutions in journalism and how to deal with them — including the traditional separation between “reporter” and “opinion writers.” As you’ve noted, the C-Times allows Boyle and now Sandford to offer their opinions on the news. Boyle often writes “straight news,” too. We decided to give it a try. You’re watching an ongoing experiment, and we appreciate your feedback.

    We hope the effort allows us to go beyond our straight-up meeting coverage and offer readers a deeper analysis of government at work. Forbes’ article also shows how a reporter notices something, questions it and looks a little deeper. He didn’t merely spout a ranting opinion; he did due diligence in investigating whether Asheville City council members violated Open Meetings Law.

    I take that due diligence as just what we want our reporters to do.

  16. Nancy

    ‘Three Democrats and a Republican walk into a bar…’ gave me a clear clue as to content (straight-up news vs. follow-up opinion), and even a quick glance at the article itself led me to understand its intention. Without the editorializing in the piece, it still stands as news and not an opinion as to whether the statute that is on the books is necessary or whether the gathering of a quorum of Council constitutes a violation.

    I appreciate this as in-depth coverage and educational to the public in regard to the laws that govern those who govern us.

  17. I guess I missed the little “opinion” tag under the article link on the front page. I saw the article headline and clicked it, never thinking to read what was below. Maybe you should make the items that appear on the front page more easy to recognize too.

    I think I agree with Media Watcher. Opinion pieces shouldn’t be coming from reporters, who to me, should be the fact finders representing all sides of a story. Once their opinion is presented, it changes everything. We already have enough of this blurring of lines between facts and opinion on cable news television. I hate to see that standard creep into my favorite newspaper.

    This article, while backed by due diligence, could have remained “news” had the last three paragraphs been left out.

    Leave the opinions to the public and report the news. That’s my vote.

  18. skiplunch

    How long did they have to wait to get a table? I’ll bet strings were pulled, palms were greased and favors promised. Was it by the window? Hmm…

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